VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright has his team’s routine down pat before games at the Pavilion or the Wells Fargo Center.
But ahead of Wednesday’s game at Jake Nevin Field House, the Villanova head coach realized he had forgotten something.
“We didn’t have a pregame meal,” he said. “We’re so used to doing it the way we do it, we missed out on setting it up. We all walked to the cafeteria and ate in the cafeteria with other students."
Wright paused and smiled, an interesting realization setting in.
“That’s probably what everybody always did," he said.
Call it another nostalgic touch in a game filled with them.
Inspired by the ghosts of Villanova past, the Wildcats put on a memorable performance in the program’s first game at Jake Nevin Field House since 1986, rolling to a 90-62 win over Penn (see observations).
But it was only after the final horn sounded and they walked off the court at the old “Cat House” that they could enjoy it. During the game, they couldn’t really do much in the way of talking with each other.
“Wild atmosphere,” Wright said. “It’s a difficult place to play for everybody, including the home team. You can’t hear anything. We legitimately had trouble communicating defensively. … I can’t imagine what that place used to be like when they had more seats in here.”
On Wednesday, there were only about 2,000 fans in the building — Villanova’s home court from 1931 until the Pavilion, now undergoing renovations, was built in 1986 — but almost all of them were students who were standing the whole game, singing in unison during breaks in the action, and erupting after every Villanova bucket.
“It was honestly awesome,” said point guard Jalen Brunson, who led Villanova with 17 points. “It was definitely a great experience. Like Coach said, it was hard to hear sometimes. I tried reading lips. I couldn’t really hear him.”
Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman had similar issues with the noise, saying he had to ask teammate Mikal Bridges “the same question 50 times.” Some of that, of course, was his own doing as his thunderous dunk midway through the first half brought down the house and set the tone as ’Nova began to pull away.
What was he thinking about on that play, as he stole the ball at midcourt and streaked toward the basket?
“Oh, I double-dribbled,” he said. “The ref didn’t call it. I definitely double-dribbled.”
That was one of a few tough breaks for the Quakers, who actually played a decent first half but still went into halftime down 18 points. The game was never close again, although Penn head coach Steve Donahue didn’t point to the atmosphere as a reason for the lopsided defeat.
“It’s not that different, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “It’s very comparable to probably 150 programs in America who play in a similar facility.”
Donahue gave much more credit to the Villanova players, who never took their foot off the gas en route to their 19th straight Big 5 victory.
“Sometimes you watch them on film and you’re slightly underwhelmed because they don’t have crazy talent,” said Donahue, who coached in the ACC with Boston College for four years. “On tape, Villanova doesn’t jump out like other teams. But what’s apparent when you play them is I’ve never coached against a team that’s smarter and tougher and more selfless.”
Wright, who can be critical of his team, admitted his team played really well and that if it didn’t, an improved Penn squad might have been able to keep it close.
But even though he’s pleased by it, he’s equally baffled by how well the Wildcats have been able to consistently throttle Big 5 opponents over the last five seasons.
“We live here,” he said. “We watch these teams. … We play against each other in the summers. Penn will come to our place in the summer and we’ll go down to Penn. We have great respect for them. We’ll play five games and sometimes Penn will win three out of five.”
He added he doesn’t like to think about the Big 5 streak, which could hit 20 if they can beat archrival St. Joe’s at Hagan Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats then face La Salle at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 10 before perhaps their toughest Big 5 game of the season — at Temple on Dec. 13.
Without the benefit of playing any games at the Pavilion, could their city streak end this season?
“I think you’re gonna see three other great games against Villanova,” Donahue said. “I do feel like we want to end that streak. There’s no doubt.
“I do think Villanova has it going but that being said, I think those three programs could beat them this year because it’s the Big 5 and the kids know each other.”